Who is This?
Rev. Ali Tranvik
Text: Matthew 21:1-11
Each month for the past couple of years, some Duke Lutherans, along with neighbors in Durham who are Baptist or Catholic or Methodist or Episcopalian (or simply just curious), gather at Pour Taproom in downtown Durham for what we’ve called “Pub Theology.” I love these gatherings. It’s always remarkable to me how a random group of people—some friends, others total strangers—are willing to open up about some of life’s biggest questions. Questions around topics like Faith + Science, Faith + Borders, Faith + Money, Faith + Imagination, Faith + Enemies, Faith + Gender…
There’s always one thing I say to folks before we break out into smaller groups and begin our conversation (if you’ve ever been to a Pub Theology gathering, this will sound familiar). As I hand out the discussion questions, I talk about the ways we tend to see questions as something to be answered. Or at least as something that has an answer (especially for those of us for whom exams are a regular part of our life). But I tell people that these questions are different. These questions probably won’t be answered. They’re not supposed to be. In fact, I always say, we’ll probably end up leaving with more questions than we started with. And, I always say, that’s a sign that it was a good conversation. A faithful conversation.
Questioning, at least within the context of American Christianity, has a tendency to be seen as a sign of spiritual weakness. A lack of faith. We question when we are unsure, and being unsure is bad, is how the logic goes. But I think the opposite is true. Curiosity, confusion, doubt, awe, wonder, “fear and trembling” (as Kierkegaard would say)…that’s the “stuff” in which God meets us. All of these things that stir up questions in us are part and parcel of what this whole faith thing is all about.
Luke Powery, the Dean of Duke Chapel, calls asking questions a spiritual practice. Not the kind of questions with predictable or predetermined answers (have you ever had a peer who asks a question in class that they clearly already have the answer to? Seminarians seem to be particularly good at that). That’s not what I’m talking about. Faith prompts the kinds of questions whose answers aren’t predictable or obvious.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been asking a lot of those kinds of questions lately. As the Coronavirus has unsettled my sense of stability, upended my predictable routines, disrupted my “business as usual,” these recent weeks have been full of questions without obvious answers. At first, they were more practical ones like “When is the next time I’ll see a roll of toilet paper?” Or, “what day is it?” But they’ve grown in gravity: “How long is this going to last? How will I be able to get through this isolation? How many people are going to die? Why does God let this—and other bad things—happen?”
Life, especially right now, is full of questions whose answers are not obvious. Faith is full of questions whose answers we cannot predict. Today’s text from Matthew gives us one such question. “Who is this?” the crowds ask of Jesus as he process through the streets of Jerusalem. This is not just a question of faith. It is, I want to suggest, the question of faith. Who is Jesus Christ?
You’d think the answer would have been fairly obvious to those who asked this question. “Who is this?” the people ask. Weren’t they just waving palms and shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” The people seemed to know who this is just moments before. It’s the son of David. The Messiah. The king they’ve been waiting for!
But a closer look at the whole event suggests that their question is a good one. An honest one. A faithful one. The people gathered in Jerusalem genuinely wanted to know who this is because this was not the king they expected (let alone the king of kings). This is not the way that the Messiah was supposed to look. You see, in those days, a king would have been escorted by royal entourage, by military leaders or officials of the empire. But who’s with Jesus? His motley crew of disciples: smelly fishermen, manual laborers, disliked tax collectors, right? These aren’t esteemed leaders. These are nobodies, poor people, people with no prestige or power (as we typically define it). “Who is this?”
Jesus is not the king the people predicted. He did not spend his time in the temples or empire’s offices or in the city center. He did not come from the places of power. He lived on the margins, right? Walking in the wilderness. Befriending those cast to the edges. He was not recognizable to the people at the center. “Who is this?”
Jesus’s mode of transportation is also a bit strange. A king would have typically chosen to ride in on an animal with a little more, what shall I say…height? Stature? A war horse would have been the animal-of-choice for a king, an animal that represented military might, but Jesus foregoes a stately steed, and instead sits atop a donkey, symbol of peace and humility. This is not the imperial procession that it seems to be on the surface, in other words; it is a parody of it (Carter). On a day when people expected a triumphant procession flaunting strength and authority, instead they got a poor man, his outcast friends, and a donkey. “Who is this?”
The question itself unsettles them. As they asked it, the text says, the whole city was in “turmoil.” This can also be translated as the whole city was “agitated” or “shaken.” It’s the same Greek verb Matthew uses to describe the “earthquake” that accompanies Jesus’ death and resurrection a few chapters later.In other words, Jesus’ presence shakes the foundations of what they people thought they knew. It upsets their notions of power and authority. Unsettles their expectations. No wonder the people are asking questions. “Who is this?”
Who is Jesus Christ? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I ask this question often enough. And when I do, my answers are predictable. Routine. Contained. But the story of Palm Sunday shows us that the answer to this question exceeds us. That this God is not what we expected or predicted. That this God cannot be contained. That this God disrupts the ways of the world, interrupts our business as usual. This God shakes the ground on which we think we stand.
Jesus’ introduction to Jerusalem invites us to be re-introduced to him.“Who is this?” we are invited to ask. In the midst of the Coronavirus, in this time when we’re likely already asking more questions than usual, maybe we’ll find ourselves more open to asking this one. Maybe, in this time when we’re shaken up a little bit, we’re better positioned to be shaken by this question. “Who is this?”
Let this be our question as we enter into the week ahead. Let us stay curious. Let us brace ourselves as the ground beneath us continues to quake. Because things are only going to get more destabilizing from here on out in this Holy Week. The road ahead is paved with earth-shattering questions. The question of betrayal and denial. The questions of trial. The question of suffering. The question of the cross. The question of the empty tomb. “Who. Is. This?”
The “answer?” We aren’t entirely sure. We know he’s not the kind of God we asked for. Not the kind of king we expected. Not the kind of savior we would have chosen. And that is the good news today, my friends. Thank goodness God doesn’t operate according to my limited expectations or desires of what a Savior should be. Thank goodness God’s definition power doesn’t look like mine. Thank goodness God’s love doesn’t resemble my own. Thank goodness this God is far beyond what I can predict or imagine, because my imagination leads me to some pretty grim places right now. We have a God whose unexpected, unpredictable, unruly love is exactly what this hurting world needs. Thanks to be God! Amen.
- Luke Powery, “Who is This?”, Duke Chapel, April 9, 2017.
- Warren Carter, “Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading,” (New York: Orbis Books), 2000.